Wall-to-wall democracy

A section of the John Lennon Wall, Prague, Czech Republic // Penny Edwards

China’s recent moves to devalue its currency, days after trade talks with the United States turned sour, might protect Chinese exports, but they will also reduce the spending power of a dynamic and mobile sector of China’s economy: tourism. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that Chinese tourists overseas spent $277.3 billion in 2018 — almost double that of American tourists.

Global tourism means mobile aspirations. Since the expansion of protests in Hong Kong in recent months, the protesters’ mobile, Post-it-note walls have drawn attention to the original, more lasting monument: Prague’s John Lennon Wall, first graffitied after the musician’s assassination in 1980. In the space of a few days, on a recent visit to Prague — from 28 to 31 July — Chinese slogans in support of the Hong Kong protests grew. The wall was already polyglot: the slogan Ai da yu hen, or “Love trumps hate”, in simplified calligraphy across the top, flanking a portrait of Lennon, was likely added during a March 2019 makeover by international artists to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the velvet revolution that toppled communism, and Soviet rule, in Czechoslovakia.

But other Chinese graffiti on Prague’s iconic wall was new. Some messages were spray-painted; others were scrawled in a thin, spidery hand. Many were in complex characters, written vertically, indicating the handiwork of visitors from Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan. Others were in large, simplified characters, running horizontally, hinting at messages from Singapore or the mainland. Underneath the slogans, already barely visible by the time I left, was a spray-painted memorial to “Raincoat Man” Marco Leung, who fell to his death from Hong Kong’s Pacific Mall after unfurling a banner that stated “Help Hong Kong. Make Love, No Shoot”.

“Hong Kong Unite, Free Rule for Hong Kong”, tagline within the character for “chaos” // Penny Edwards

These inscriptions echo slogans from Hong Kong. Among them are the now famous lines from LGBTQ Cantopop activist Denise Ho’s 2005 song “Glamorous”, which became a clarion call in the 2014 Umbrella Movement: “Sheng yu luan shi / you zhong ze ren” (“To be born in a world of chaos / is to bear serious responsibility”). (After her courageous stand with the protests in 2014, Ho lost market share and was in effect censored out of China.)

The lodestones luan (chaos) and ze (responsibility) in Ho’s lyrics are distinguished from their usage in mainland propaganda not only by their long-form characters but also by their associations. To Hong Kong protesters, luan symbolises the chaos, fear and uncertainty of a future under totalitarian rule, where, alongside the trampling of political freedoms, Cantonese language and identity risk being homogenised. To the Chinese government, all forms of protest are luan; its citizens’ only responsibility is to blindly obey the institutions of the state.

The soundtrack and imagery in the People’s Liberation Army training video released on 31 July offered a digital retort to the popular slogans: Hong Kong, add oil? We’ll blow up your car. You want responsibility? We’ll hold you responsible! Into a megaphone, in the simulated response to a protest, a soldier yells “Hou guo zi ze!” (“All consequences are your responsibility!”).

Like the Chinese characters in the ongoing war of words between Hong Kong and the mainland, the Great Wall of China can also be read two ways: as a symbol of China’s power to keep invaders out, and as a symbol of its power to keep its population in check. Deng Xiaoping’s rise brought with it a new campaign to promote the symbolism of the Great Wall, distracting attention from the recent and catastrophic Cultural Revolution, invoking a pre-Mao era without explicitly criticising the Great Helmsman, and softening party stalwarts opposed to his open-door policy by mobilising an appeal to nationalism via his pursuit of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

American Sinologist Owen Lattimore, an expert on the Sino-Russian border, stressed the function of China’s walls and borders, structurally and symbolically, to keep foreigners out and the Chinese in. Lattimore died in May 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and years before the Chinese government began to pay serious attention to another of its defences, the Great Firewall.

“Raincoat Man”, anonymous artist // Penny Edwards

The long arm of the Chinese government and its net censors cannot police tourist interactions with third-country protest sites like Prague’s John Lennon Wall, but Chinese-run guided tours can be selective. I saw Chinese tourist groups thronging Charles Bridge, but they were nowhere to be seen at Petřín Hill’s Memorial to the Victims of Communism, dedicated by the City of Prague and the Confederation of Political Prisoners to “all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism”. The sculpture by Olbram Zoubek shows a man receding from a full-bodied being to a foot stump, his body and soul amputated by the spiritual deprivations and brutal incarceration of communism. St Vitus Cathedral, in Prague Castle, was also bustling with guided tours from China, but tour guides glided past the memorial to champion of conscience Archbishop Josef Beran (1888-1969), who was arrested by the Nazis in 1942, sent to Dachau, freed in 1945 and appointed archbishop in 1946, only to become a prisoner of the communist regime until 1963, when he sought asylum in Rome. Among Beran’s “subversive and dangerous behaviour” in Nazi-occupied Prague was holding mass in the Czech language.

Linguistic identity has long forged unity and a sense of difference in Hong Kong, and has inspired the city’s many protests. Hong Kong and Macao are the only enclaves of China to have kept alive long-form (complex, fan-ti-zi) characters. On the mainland, characters were reduced to short-form (or simplified, jian-ti-zi) versions as part of the government’s 1950s literacy campaign, alongside moves to unify and revolutionise a people through a standardised language — Mandarin.

In his Tyranny of History: The Roots of China’s Crisis, Sinologist W. F. Jenner describes the homogenising effect of Chinese historical records across dynasties, whose “single, unifying script” restricted the development of “local linguistically defined loyalties”. The complex roots of Hong Kong’s crisis were shaped by the tyrannies of history and language. A century and a half of British colonialism imposed an alien language, racial legislation and a punitive regime on Hong Kong. It also insulated the Cantonese language and script from reforms on the mainland, up to and after the handover. This distinct linguistic heritage — embraced by glitterati like Denise Ho as well as the anonymous scribes of Prague’s John Lennon Wall — has honed a sense of cultural autonomy, and lent a deeper dimension and momentum to the current protests. When civil servants joined a nationwide strike on 1 August, the Hong Kong government warned them to stay loyal or face reprisals. Stay loyal they did: not to a bureaucracy but to a language, and a way of life, that many Hongkongers are reluctant to hand over.


Penny Edwards is an associate professor in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


August 9, 2019